Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Thucydides, Benghazi, and Honor

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Thucydides, Benghazi, and Honor

Article excerpt

In his February 20 speech at the University of Virginia, Secretary of State John Kerry made the case for diplomacy as an instrument of national policy. Generations of thinkers have recognized that neither our country's diplomatic weight nor its military power can be applied with full effect unless our national security strategy makes optimal use of both. This is true in peace no less than in war, and also in the conditions of political uncertainty that prevail in much of the Near East today. America's diplomats are pressing our nation's agenda in "some of the most dangerous places on earth," in the Secretary's phrase. The September 11, 2012, Benghazi attacks are a reminder of that fact.

American diplomats in the Near East work in an environment that can transform instantly from hieratic welcome to chaotic hostility. We prepare for this by studying strategy and human behavior, mastering techniques of influence and persuasion, cultivating fluency in the languages, cultures, and history of the region, and practicing the science of personal and institutional security that State's Diplomatic Security Bureau has advanced dramatically over recent decades. Since diplomacy is an ancient profession, predating the modern state by millennia, we also benefit from the study of ancient sources.

Ancient Diplomacy

Early cultures typically regarded foreigners as inherently threatening and even ritually unclean. Yet many recognized the need to communicate with other societies and developed a class of trusted specialists to undertake the task. It is thus the very essence of diplomats' missions to cross boundaries and serve beyond the limit of their countries' ability to protect them. Accordingly, it is nothing new for diplomats to find themselves in harm's way. In Asia, India, and Europe, traditions evolved holding diplomats sacrosanct and allowing them to travel unmolested. As today, these early concepts of "diplomatic immunity" sometimes failed.

The 13th-century Shah of Khwarezm caused the eradication of his state by torturing and murdering ambassadors bearing a goodwill message from Genghis Khan. Even in Greece, where diplomatic practice was first systematized, violations occurred. When the Persian King Darius sent envoys to the Greek city-states with a peremptory demand for earth and water as tokens of submission, the demarche was not well received. Those who visited Athens were cast into a pit, and those who took the message to Sparta were thrown into a well. The historian Herodotus indicates that some interpreted the destruction of Athens in the subsequent Persian invasion as divine retribution for these breaches of diplomatic immunity.

Classical Greek diplomats, known as heralds, credited their eloquence and retentive memory to the inspirational tutelage of the god Hermes, whom Zeus often entrusted with delicate diplomatic missions. For centuries, Greek and Roman diplomats carried a staff resembling the caduceus--Hermes's staff, incorporating two intertwined snakes topped by wings--as a talisman of their profession and symbol of the gods' protection.

Thucydides's History

Diplomats figured prominently in Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War, which recounts the epochal 27-year conflict between rival alliances led by Athens and Sparta (431-404 BCE). Once hostilities commenced, all discourse between the warring parties ceased "except through the medium of heralds," and the narrative highlights their role. Truce terms were debated, peace proposals were frequently exchanged, and a negotiated ceasefire for recovery of the dead and wounded followed every battle. Treaty agreements were multitiered and complex, and recourse to arbitration was commonplace. Ambassadors from allied states met in conference, and well-timed demarches from smaller states sometimes altered the policy of great powers. Indeed the well-calculated (but deceptive) overtures of the Egestaeans swayed Athens to embrace perhaps the most catastrophic policy initiative ever adopted by a democracy: the failed invasion of Sicily, which crushed Athens's last hope for victory. …

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